My rating: 2 of 5 stars
In fact I’ve been thinking about this for some time now: if there’s a reason I love big, maximalist novels full of erudition and obscure allusions and non-linear storytelling it’s because I’m trying to relieve the excitement I had in my early twenties reading Alan Moore and Grant Morrison. Coover, Theroux, Gaddis, Pynchon are the closest things I can find to the mind-bending thrills of complex comics like From Hell, Swamp Thing, Animal Man, Promethea, Doom Patrol and The Invisibles.
While my taste in contemporary American literature is a bit different from Miguel’s (I can get annoyed at maximalist mega-novels), my own aesthetic trajectory was roughly similar. The comics I read in adolescence, somewhere past the fringe of respectable literary culture, though they alluded quite often to Shakespeare and Joyce, Shelley and Eliot, were a source of vitality, complexity, startling ideas, and involuted symbolism that I was not quite getting in many of the books they gave us to read in school or in the fiction that appeared in places like The New Yorker or Harper’s, which I semi-appallingly started buying from the magazine stand in the grocery store midway through high school. Despite the fact that I can, as a wizened adult with a protracted literary education, see the limitations in what Moore, Morrison, Gaiman, Milligan, Ennis, Miller, Pope, McKean, et al., were doing, they set a standard of intensity, stylishness, and intricacy that remains with me. And please don’t mistake this for a mere nostalgist’s lament: when I see more contemporary or very different kinds of comics work that can match them in some way, I am thrilled—such as the manga I have been exploring by Inio Asano, Kyōko Okazaki, and Moyoco Anno, with their own storytelling complications, layered symbolism, and slightly distasteful force, laced as it is with body horror, comedy, earnest sentiment, and gross confrontationalism. As for contemporary American literary comics—the kind that now have the respect of the literati, the kind that have migrated into The New Yorker and environs—my admiration for Daniel Clowes, the Hernandez Bros., Alison Bechdel, and Art Spiegelman is real.
But Adrian Tomine’s stories have always struck me as the final gentrification of comics, their full assimilation into the staid precincts of respectable realist literature as brevetted by the universities: its impeccable craft, its delicate restraint, its tasteful handling of unsavory subject matter. Now “realist” is not just a swear word with me—I like what I’ve read of Updike and Franzen and Irving and Oates and Roth—but realism combined with MFA standardization, the whole tired Raymond Carver routine, seems like a sad destiny for such a vigorous and never quite “right” art form as comics.
The six stories in Killing and Dying—and even their packaging, from the Denny’s pictured on the front cover to the Zadie Smith blurb on the back cover—do nothing to dissuade me from this extreme judgment.
The first story, “A Brief History of the Art Form Known as ‘Hortisculpture,'” is told in the style of comic strips—dailies and Sundays—and concerns a gardener who gets an idea for a new form of art that combines sculpture with landscaping. His attempt to realize this idea, which is defeated at every turn more by his own naïvete than by outside opposition, is played for laughs over 20 long pages until you get the feeling that Tomine is amused at the thought of such a person having any ideas at all. The comic-strip conceit, perfectly executed as it is, is the kind of thing that gives cleverness a bad name. All in all, an ugly piece of work—The New Yorker worldview (average readership household income: $109,877) taken to extremes. The next story, “Amber Sweet,” is about a young woman whose life is almost ruined because she looks like a porn star. But is porn in the age of the Internet anywhere near centralized enough to allow for such a scenario? The story ends with a spectacular anti-climax—fittingly, given that the situation never seems like the major problem Tomine wants it to be. The more straightforward art and pastel coloring in this one is nice, though.
The third story, “Go Owls,” is much the most successful in the collection: Tomine relaxes and lets himself create a complex character toward whom he allows readers a complex reaction—in this case, a charming, drug-dealing, recovering alcoholic, domestically abusive, bad-news-but-almost-lovable bullshit artist. This story, with its clear cartooning and perfect dialogue, almost brought me around. The next one, “Translated, from the Japanese,” is good, too: a quiet reminiscence about a fraught family reunion told entirely through impersonal POV-style images of landscapes or inanimate artistry. The soothing, unemotional imagery, done in Tomine’s ultra-precise lines and clean coloring, mimics the understatement of the painful narrative.
But then the next story, the title story, with its claustrophobic 20-panel grid and its uniformly unpleasant characters and its narrative sadism (family unhappiness, cancer, public humiliation!), takes us back to the nauseating hauteur of the expert story-writer playing with his characters as children play with insects. The final story, “Intruders,” a quasi-noir drawn in rougher lines, is too brief and mysterious to evaluate, the central situation a bit too neatly symbolic.
All in all, Killing and Dying is uneven, and, for me, the bad outweighs the good. On the back, Zadie Smith says that Tomine has “more ideas in twenty panels than novelists have in a lifetime.” There are comics creators who merit such praise far more, just as there are novelists who do not deserve such dispraise at all.